Monday, March 05, 2007

Vienna Philharmonic (long)

Vienna Slow to Change Its Tune
Justin Davidson

March 2, 2007

In the symphonic music world, the Vienna Philharmonic defines prestige. It performs annually at Carnegie Hall, its concerts are almost always sold out, its New Year's celebration in Vienna is broadcast around the world, and having stood on its podium is a conductor's equivalent of Olympic gold. The Philharmonic is Austria's preeminent purveyor of Austria's most visible export: classical music. But it is more: To many people around the world, and in its own corporate estimation, it embodies the quintessence of the Western musical tradition.

I have heard and written about the orchestra many times, but I will not be attending Friday's Carnegie Hall performances - or Saturday's, or Sunday's - and it may be years before I review it again. A decade after it supposedly committed itself to entering the 21st century, I believe that the Vienna Philharmonic has relinquished its claim to serious consideration as a dynamic cultural organization.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, on the eve of another U.S. tour and under pressure from the Austrian government, the orchestra struck down the statute in its bylaws forbidding women from becoming members. That change permitted Anna Lelkes, a harpist who had been playing in the orchestra in an unofficial capacity for many years, to become a full-fledged member. She has since retired.

In the decade since that change in policy, the orchestra has replaced about 40 people, and still has a solitary female member - another harpist, Charlotte Balzereit - and 136 men. Even if every one of the women now in the long and blockage-prone pipeline made it into this most rarefied of classical clubs, they would still only number five by 2010. The Citadel, the South Carolina military school that reluctantly admitted its first woman in 1996, has a far better record of adaptation.

When challenged on this issue, the Philharmonic answers that it is making a good-faith attempt to increase the number of women in its ranks, and offers a number of "buts": 1) Most members stay in the orchestra for life, which keeps the rate of turnover low. 2) The organization is dedicated to a fundamentally historical mission, so it need not reflect contemporary mores. 3) Its highest concern is the refinement of its art, and if the price to be paid for that is a sluggish creep toward equality, so be it. Finally, the orchestra's identity depends on a complex of highly local traditions, so any new member must not only be a brilliant musician, but also someone capable of imbibing and integrating with the orchestra's spirit.

Mary Lou Falcone, a New York-based spokeswoman for the Vienna Philharmonic, and one of the more indomitable women in a world historically controlled by conservative men, told me to be patient, that the orchestra works on its own time scale. "What I see is the openness of the Vienna Philharmonic to have auditions that include everyone. They're preserving the best of their tradition and a sound that's been there for 160 years, a distinctive sound, which most orchestras today don't have."

But the geological pace of change is not merely a regrettable obstacle in the relentless pursuit of quality. It is product of a narrowly preservationist, antiquarian philosophy, which fetishizes sound at the expense of spirit. The composers in the Vienna Philharmonic's pantheon were all disturbers of the peace, and they railed against the city's recurring fondness for the status quo. Beethoven was a liberal idealist, a radical egalitarian and artistic revolutionary who would have been revolted by the claim that performing his forward-looking, constantly renewable music required an inflexible reverence for custom.

Most orchestras are conservative: They keep reheating the same masterpiece soup, seasoned with the occasional novelty. But some - the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example - aspire to flexibility, excitement, leadership and collaboration with the creators of today. Few major ensembles have quite so hidebound a philosophy, and none so monochromatic and homogeneous a membership, as the Vienna Philharmonic. (To take one top-tier example, women constitute 40 percent of the New York Philharmonic.)

The world's most important orchestra treats the symphonic repertoire the way re-enactment societies treat the Civil War: as terrain for the obsessive pursuit of historical correctness. There is a place for this, of course. We should be grateful for the efforts of so many dedicated people who put their expertise and time to the service of faithful reconstruction of the past. Obscurity becomes part of these organizations' charm.

But if we judge an orchestra's quality by what it contributes to the vibrant, dynamic musical culture that keeps the symphonic tradition alive, rather than by the transparency of its string sound, then the Vienna Philharmonic would occupy a dusty corner.

The orchestra's defenders make one additional argument: It is a completely private association, which receives no public funds, and so it does not actually have to change at all. Aside from its symbolic value to the Austrian nation, however, it is also an association made up entirely of Austrian civil servants: the tenured membership of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. For those musicians, membership in the Philharmonic amounts to a second job. It is difficult for an American to understand why the glacial pace of change in a group so tightly (if indirectly) linked to the government causes no apparent public embarrassment except in the liberal Green Party.

The Vienna Philharmonic cannot keep women out forever, especially since it professes not to want to. Even a group that holds nostalgia in such high regard has its progressive contingent. Inevitably, the orchestra will change. And when it does, I will recover my interest in hearing what it has to say, hoping to detect that great old sound fired by new ideas.